Kane v. Paul Executor of Coursault

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United States Supreme Court

39 U.S. 33

Kane  v.  Paul Executor of Coursault

IN error to the Circuit Court of the United States for the county of Washington, in the District of Columbia.

Edward Coursault, then a merchant of the city of Philadelphia, in December, 1809, was the owner of the brig Good Friends, and part of her cargo. Both the brig and cargo were seized at Morlaix, in France, by order of the French government, and were confiscated.

In 1825, Edward Coursault died in Baltimore, where he resided at the time of his decease; and by his will, dated August, 1814, he appointed Aglae Coursault, his wife, his executrix, and Gabriel Paul his executor.

On the 27th August, 1814, letters testamentary of the will were granted in Baltimore to Gabriel Paul. Mrs. Coursault did not qualify, nor did she renounce, as executrix. Some time afterwards, Gabriel Paul removed to the state of Missouri.

The claim of the estate of Edward Coursault, for indemnity for the seizure and confiscation of the brig Good Friends and cargo, having been provided for by the convention between the United States and France, concluded at Paris, in July, 1831, Aglae Coursault, styling herself the widow and executrix of the last will and testament of Edward Coursault, in January, 1833, presented a memorial to the board of commissioners appointed to carry the convention into effect, claiming indemnity for the seizure and confiscation of the brig and cargo.

The memorial stated the death of Edward Coursault, the appointment of the memorialist and Gabriel Paul executors, by his last will, that letters testamentary were granted to the memorialist and Gabriel Paul; and the memorial also states that whatever amount of said claim may be awarded under said convention, will belong solely and exclusively to the memorialist, as executor of the last will and testament of the said Edward Coursault, deceased.

Together with the documents presented to the commissioners, showing the property of the Good Friends and part of her cargo to have belonged, at the time of the seizure and confiscation, to Edward Coursault, there was a power of attorney from Gabriel Paul, as 'administrator of the estate of Edward Coursault,' to Mrs. Aglae Coursault, authorizing her to present in his name to the commissioners of the United States the claim of the estate of Edward Coursault, promising to present himself before them as soon as required.

The commissioners awarded the sum of seven thousand eight hundred and sixty-four dollars, in favour of the claimant.

On the 27th of March, 1837, an affidavit was made and presented to the Orphans Court of the county of Washington, in the District of Columbia, stating that Edward Coursault had died in the city of Baltimore, in 1814, and that Aglae Coursault, his widow and executrix, had died about two years before the making of the affidavit.

On the 29th of March, 1837, the judge of the Orphans Court directed letters of administration, with the will annexed, to be issued upon the estate of Edward Coursault, to Elias Kane, Esquire; and the sum awarded on the claim of Aglae Coursault by the commissioners, was paid at the Treasury of the United States to Mr. Kane, as the administrator.

Gabriel Paul, in November, 1837, as executor of Edward Coursault, having taken out letters of administration in the District of Columbia, instituted a suit in the Circuit Court of the county of Washington against Elias Kane, for the recovery of the sum paid to him by the United States; and at November term, 1838, the cause was tried, and a verdict and judgment were rendered for the plaintiff.

At the trial, the defendant in the Circuit Court gave in evidence an exemplification of the letters of administration granted by the Orphans Court of the county of Washington; but the Court directed the jury that they were no bar to the action of the plaintiff. The defendant excepted to this opinion of the Court. And the plaintiff having offered in evidence the award of the commissioners, the power of attorney from the plaintiff to Aglae Coursault, (by copies from the State Department), and his letters testamentary, with a copy of the will annexed; and having proved that the plaintiff was then living; the Court directed the jury that the plaintiff, if the said evidence was believed, was entitled to recover the amount received by the defendant under the award. The defendant excepted to this direction of the Court, and prosecuted this writ of error.

The cause was argued by Mr. Key, with whom was Mr. Kane, for the plaintiff in error; and by Mr. Coxe and Mr. Semmes, for the defendant.

Mr. Key, for the plaintiff in error, contended that the letters of administration granted to the plaintiff in the District of Columbia, were not void; and that the instructions of the Circuit Court were erroneous.

If there had not been special legislation on this subject, no doubt could be entertained of the invalidity of the letters of administration granted to Gabriel Paul, in the District of Columbia; after those which had been granted to the plaintiff in error. By the general law, administration is to be granted in the place where the property of the deceased person is found; and letters testamentary drawing their authority from a different state or country, have no validity. 9 Wheat. 571. Smith vs. the Union Bank of Georgetown, 5 Peters, 518. Story's Conflict of Laws, 422. 429-433. 436. 439. 20 Johns. Rep. 265.

The special legislation by the Act of Congress of 24th June, 1812, was not intended to make a general change on this subject. It meant only to authorize suit to be brought on foreign letters of administration, or letters of administration granted out of the District of Columbia. The Court will lean in favour of this construction of the act; and by giving it this limitation, will prevent, as far as possible, the infraction of the principle, that the personal estate of an intestate, or decedent, is to be distributed according to the local law of the place where it may be.

Nor can the act of Congress of 1812, be construed to take away the authority to issue letters of administration in this District, when no administration of the deceased is within the District, and there are personal effects belonging to the deceased within the same.

The law does not take away this jurisdiction of the Orphans Court of the county of Washington to issue letters of administration. While it authorizes a foreign administrator to come into this District, it leaves the authority of the Orphans Court as it existed before the act. Such a construction of the law would be most unreasonable, and would produce great difficulties and inconveniences. There is no power to compel a foreign administrator to come into this District and collect the assets of the estate. Thus the personal property of a decedent might be wasted and lost. But to construe the law, as is contended for by the plaintiff in error, is to give it all the efficiency requisite, and essential to the purposes of the legislation. The foreign administrator may institute suits in the District; but over assets which are in the District, an administrator duly appointed by the Orphans Court, before the foreign administrator comes here, has full and exclusive control and authority.

In support of this construction of the act of Congress, the counsel cited United States vs. Fisher, 2 Cranch, 35. Baldwin C. C. Rep. 316. Cowper, 391. 6 Dane's Abridgment, 601. 593. Foster's Case, 11 Coke's Rep. 64a.

The power given to an administrator in the District, is to collect and administer the estate of the intestate according to the lex rei sitae. After his appointment he cannot excuse himself for neglecting to collect the assets of the estate by alleging that there was another and a foreign administrator: nor would the payment of a debt to a foreign administrator, by a person in the District, be a bar to the claim of an administrator appointed here. Suppose an administrator appointed in the District should have brought suits, would they abate when a foreign administrator comes here? It is admitted that the act of Congress of 1812, may be interpreted to give concurrent powers to foreign and domestic administrators, but not to make the powers of the foreign administrator exclusive. Story's Conflict of Laws, 431.

There is another view of this question. This is not a debt which was due to the intestate in his lifetime. It is money of the estate which came into this District in 1827; and the letters testamentary, granted in Baltimore, were issued to Gabriel Paul, in 1814. The action in the Circuit Court was not for money due to the testator, but due to the executor of Coursault. The action is not, therefore, authorized by the act of Congress, as it authorized suits by the representative of a decedent; but this is a suit in his own right by the executor.

A suit may be brought by an administrator for the recovery of a debt due to him, contracted with him in his capacity of administrator, after the decease of his intestate. 4 Mason C. C. Rep. 34. But the act of Congress gives no power to sue, except in cases where action can be brought on letters of administration for debts to, or on contracts with, the intestate. It has no application to suits which a party might institute without letters of administration; such as suits for claims by the administrator on debts due on contracts or obligations which have arisen after the decease of the party represented by him.

An objection lies to the original letters testamentary granted in Baltimore to Gabriel Paul. The will of Edward Coursault appointed two executors, and yet without any renunciation by Aglae Coursault, the letters testamentary are issued to Gabriel Paul alone. This is contrary to the testamentary act of February, 1777, ch. 8.

The counsel for the defendant in error stated, that the application to the commissioners under the treaty of indemnity with France, was made by Aglae Coursault acting as executrix of her husband, and under a power of attorney from Gabriel Paul, who had regularly proved the will and taken out letters testamentary. The award of the commissioners was to the executor; this was regular. The sum awarded was the property of the estate of Edward Coursault, being an indemnity for the seizure of his property in his lifetime; and the claim for a recompense for this injury passed to the executors of his will.

Thus situated, and Aglae Coursault having died, the plaintiff in error came forward; and disregarding the rights of the defendant in error, which were his by the letters testamentary, and by the award of the commissioners under the treaty, he obtained possession of this money under letters of administration granted to him in the District of Columbia. He did not come forward as a creditor of the estate of Edward Coursault, but as a stranger, and took possession of the fund. This was an illegal interference with the rights of the executor, and cannot be allowed. The provisions of the act of Congress on the subject of the claims under the treaty with France have been violated; rights clearly vested under the law and by the award of the commissioners have been disregarded.

The fund awarded under the treaty with France was not assets in the District of Columbia. The claim had been presented on the part of the representatives of a merchant of Baltimore, for the seizure of his vessel and cargo; and the United States having received the money from France, were trustees for the claimants to distribute the same among them. If this fund had any location, it was in Baltimore; there the United States were bound to pay the amount awarded to the executor of Edward Coursault. In point of fact the money was paid in New York, as there it had been kept by the United States when received from France. All that was required was the presentation of the award of the commissioners, to the agents of the United States in New York.

The action in the Circuit Court was properly brought. But if this was not so, the exception should have been taken by a plea in abatement. The plea of the general issue admits the right of the executor to sue. 8 Wheat. 542. 1 Peters, 386. 4 Peters, 500. Baker vs. Biddle, Baldwin's C. C. Rep. 394. To show the right of the executor to sue, cited Biddle vs. Wilkins, 1 Peters, 486. 1 Ventris, 535. 1 Mod. 213. 2 Mod. 149. Hobart, 46. 2 Lord Ray. 701. 1 Williams on Executors, 155. An administration granted, where there is an executor, is void. 3 Bos. and Pull. 30. Toller on Executors, 120. 8 Cranch, 1.

Mr. Justice WAYNE delivered the opinion of the Court.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).